Why is Construction Essential During a Pandemic

Posted On: July 23, 2020
essential construction
The COVID-19 pandemic has forced all of us to confront what services are truly essential for keeping society livable. Some of them were gimmes: grocery stores and law enforcement. Others are obviously non-essential – despite much gnashing of teeth, you won't die without a haircut. But many industries fall into a gray area. To some, construction is obviously essential. To others, it's obviously not. Which is it? Well, as it turns out…both.

What is an Essential Service During COVID-19?

Local politics and opinions have impacted the list of essential services from place to place. However, some businesses have been declared essential almost universally. These tend to be life-sustaining services and the businesses that support them, including:
  • Food & Essential Items: supermarkets, convenience stores, and restaurants (without dine-in service)
  • Healthcare: hospitals, doctors, pharmacies, dentists, and veterinary clinics (many emergency-only)
  • Transportation: airports, train stations, ports, gas stations, and auto repair
  • Lodging: property management, moving services, and hotels
  • Emergency Services: fire stations and law enforcement
  • Financial/Logistical: banks, post offices, and shipping services
  • Infrastructure: communications, energy, waste management, and utilities
The services that lay up the chain from these businesses are also critical, including manufacturing, production, and distribution.

Is Construction Essential During a Pandemic?

Cities and states have made a broad range of policy decisions across the country:
  • 15 states placed some degree of restriction on the type of construction work deemed essential
  • 30 states considered all construction work essential
  • 5 states didn't issue any policy that directly impacted construction
Federal guidance has been vague or conflicting.

What Work Falls Under the Construction Umbrella?

There's a good reason the results are so mixed – construction includes a broad number of activities. It encompasses many different trades and supports every sector of the economy, essential and non-essential alike. In addition to building new structures that range from single-family homes to oil pipelines, construction work also involves:
  • Altering or converting
  • Maintaining, repairing, and renovating
  • De-commissioning and/or demolishing
In addition to work on a structure itself, construction work also involves the mechanical, electrical, electronic, and utility elements fixed to or within a structure – elevators, plumbing, HVAC, and more.

What Essential Services Does the Construction Industry Support?

The sheer scope of the construction industry means some construction work is non-essential during a pandemic, while other work is absolutely critical. Here are a few construction services we can't survive coronavirus without.

Keeping Everyone's Homes Habitable

Sheltering at home relies on the assumption that home is a safe place to be. As coronavirus shapes our economy and our lives, other events do as well. Pipes clog and fuses blow.  Trees fall through your roof, kids break windows, and air conditioners die in heatwaves. Timely repair and maintenance are essential to keeping houses and multi-family buildings habitable, safe, and secure, 24 hours a day.

Keeping Essential Businesses Running

Just like homes, vital systems in essential businesses may need repairs or maintenance to keep that business functioning. It's hard to sell groceries if the roof just caved in. Hotel guests can't shelter in place if their toilet suddenly overflows.

Increasing and Maintaining Capacity of Essential Services

Even jurisdictions that otherwise halted new construction have allowed healthcare sector projects to proceed. In fact, many hard-hit urban areas began coronavirus-motivated construction of field hospitals to increase their surge capacity. States and cities with a critical housing shortage are considering the renovation or construction of homes to be essential. This especially applies to low-income or temporary structures that can mitigate the risks to the homeless.

Maintaining and Repairing Transportation Infrastructure

Our transportation infrastructure in the U.S. is old and not always stable, so maintenance and repair can become essential (and urgent) faster than you'd think. This includes the construction, repair, and maintenance of:
  • Roads, bridges, tunnels, and traffic signals
  • Rail infrastructure and equipment
  • Airports and runways
  • Mass transit structures, including subway tunnels
  • Dams, locks, canals, ports, docks, and more
  • Dams, levees, and drainage infrastructure
These projects not only keep essential supplies moving; they also preserve public safety.

Maintaining Power, Utility, and Communications Infrastructure

To many laypeople, the minutiae of distributing electricity, gas, water, and telecommunications "just happens," like the distribution of air. In truth, each can involve many production facilities, conveyance structures, relay and distribution mechanisms, and more. Frequent construction, maintenance, renovation, and repair are needed to keep each system running smoothly. This includes construction work related to:
  • Water and wastewater treatment plants, pump stations, reservoirs, tanks, and sewer systems
  • Power plants, transmission towers and lines, transformer substations, and distribution lines
  • Fossil fuel mining, drilling, refining, and processing
  • Oil and natural gas pipelines
  • Aboveground and underground storage tanks
  • Gas mains and service lines
  • Telecommunications lines, cables, towers, satellites, antenna, and other structures
  • Solid waste and hazardous waste storage and management facilities
All of this infrastructure is critical to securing public safety, enabling live-sustaining services, and keeping us safe in our homes.

What About "Non-Essential" Construction?

Construction businesses are like sharks – they keep moving or die. "Pausing" a project still costs the client money. It also leaves workers hungry. It's a no-win situation. That makes it tempting to keep all construction work rolling under the guise of being essential. On the other hand, certain construction work comes with unavoidable risks for coronavirus transmission, including:
  • Tight working quarters and necessary close contact
  • Shortage of N95 masks for normal respiratory hazards
  • Shortage of supplies for reducing COVID transmission risks
  • Heatstroke if you wear a coronavirus mask on-site (or increased transmission risk if you don't)
  • Required travel and hotel stays for remote projects
  • Crowded transportation to, from, within, and between job sites
All of these factors need to give companies pause when pushing for non-essential projects in economic sectors that are closed, like entertainment, retail, and office buildings.

Do What You Can From Home

Most construction personnel can't do their jobs from home, but it's worthwhile to reduce your exposure risk where you can. This is where we can help. If it's time to renew your safety training, online courses allow you to complete your requirements from the safety of home. We've been an OSHA-authorized training provider for over 20 years, and we can help you earn your OSHA 10 or OSHA 30 DOL card, as well as certificates of training completion in many specific 1926 standards.

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